Saturday, October 20, 2012

Did "Homeland" slander Beirut?

There is a grim humor to the juxtaposition of these two recent stories.

=> Here's the first story (from the Associated Press, via Ha'aretz):
Militants carrying assault weapons clear the area around a street, shouting in Arabic for people to get out of the way. A jeep pulls up: The world's No. 1 jihadi has arrived for a meeting with top Hezbollah commanders. On rooftops, U.S. snipers crouch unseen, the kingpin in their crosshairs at last.

The scene, from a recent episode of the hit U.S. Showtime series "Homeland," is supposed to be Beirut. But it is really [filmed] in Israel, a country similar enough in some areas to stand in for Lebanon, yet a world away in most other respects.

The show about Arab terrorists and American turncoats has inadvertently become a tale of two cities. Some Beirutis are angry because the depiction of their city as swarming with militiamen is misleading and because they see Israel as the enemy. [....]

Lebanese Tourism Minister Fadi Abboud told The Associated Press on Thursday that he's so upset about the portrayal of Beirut that he's considering a lawsuit. [....]
It's understandable that a Tourism Minister might be upset about a portrayal of Beirut as a city "swarming with militiamen," where Hizbullah gunmen and international terrorists operate with impunity. But we might want to take this indignation with a grain of salt.  As the AP article goes on to point out:
Beirut itself has developed impressively in the two decades since its 15-year civil war ended, and its growing renown as a party city in its own right - the most liberal and fun-loving of major Arab cities - is a source of some fascination to Israelis who are barred from going there.

But the portrayal of Lebanon as swarming with guns is hardly unreasonable nonetheless.

The country has dozens of armed militias that still flourish, and an alarming number of private individuals have weapons in their homes, including hunting rifles, guns and even RPG launchers.

The biggest militia of all, Iranian-backed Hezbollah, has gained so much power and influence over the years that it's now part of the government, wielding virtual veto power, and long-running talks on disarmament have gone nowhere.

The abundance of weapons is one reason why conflicts here can turn deadly so quickly.

In May, an explosive, eight-hour shootout in a residential area of west Beirut, which apparently began after a domestic dispute, killed several people - including a man who was firing machine guns and lobbing grenades from his balcony.

Lebanon also has seen a rise in clashes stemming from the civil war in neighboring Syria. [....]
=> On the whole, though, isn't Beirut now a relatively safe, stable, and economically vibrant city? Isn't the portrayal of Beirut as violent and unsafe just an out-of-date stereotype left over from previous decades of civil war and foreign intervention?

Well, here's the second story, reported in yesterday's New York Times:
BEIRUT, Lebanon — A powerful bomb devastated a Christian neighborhood of this capital city of Lebanon on Friday, killing an intelligence official long viewed as an enemy by neighboring Syria and unnerving a nation as Syria’s sectarian-fueled civil war spills beyond its borders and threatens to engulf the region.

The blast, which sheared the faces off buildings, killed at least eight people, wounded 80 and transformed a quiet tree-lined street into a scene reminiscent of Lebanon’s long civil war, threatened to worsen sectarian tensions. [....]

Within hours of the attack, the Lebanese authorities announced that the dead included the intelligence chief of the country’s internal security service, Brig. Gen. Wissam al-Hassan, instantly spurring accusations that the Syrian government had assassinated him for recently uncovering what the authorities said was a Syrian plot to provoke unrest in Lebanon.

“They wanted to get him, and they got him,” said Paul Salem, a regional analyst with the Carnegie Middle East Center.

But if the attack was targeted, the blast was most certainly not. The force of the explosion left elderly residents fleeing their wrecked homes in bloodied pajamas and spewed charred metal as far as two blocks. [....]
=> This bombing was no doubt part of the regional spillover from the ongoing struggle for Syria, and it is understandable that at this point Lebanese political figures would prefer to blame it publicly on foreign actors rather than domestic opponents. But it's unrealistic to pretend that this bombing wasn't also linked to political conflicts within Lebanon itself. After all, Hizbullah is not only a client of the Assad regime (and of Assad's own patrons in Tehran), but is the most active and significant ally of the Syrian regime in the whole Arab world.  And they had every reason to view the assassination of Gen. Hassan with satisfaction, both for its own sake and in order to intimidate others.

In today's Ha'aretz Amos Harel and Avi Issacharoff suggest, very plausibly, that "Even if the Syrian military provided the intelligence for Friday's car bombing in central Beirut, Hezbollah executed it. The alliance between them is closer than ever and is leading to friction with the Lebanese army." They argue further that this bombing should probably be regarded as the "opening shot in Hezbollah's battle for the future of Lebanon." Thar remains to be seen. But in the meantime, their analysis is worth reading in full.

—Jeff Weintraub